Chapter excerpt Part 1

This is from a chapter that I pulled out of In Sheltering Talons because of length and because, while it is important to Rada and Joschka’s story, it is not as important as some other things. It was written a number of years ago, so it is rough in spots.

The early June breeze whispering over the tarmac at Kirtland Air Force Base carried a chill. Sgt. White wondered if he would ever get used to the high desert. He was from Louisiana and his previous tours had been at Barksdale and MacDill, both in sunny, humid climes. But sunrise would come in another hour and already the few stars visible through the city lights were fading, even though it would be a while before the sun slid up from behind Sandia Mountain, east of Albuquerque.

White heard footsteps and turned to find someone striding up towards the gate. “Has the Graf-General arrived?” Major Gonzales asked from the darkness.

“No one has approached the gate, sir.” White replied, wondering who or what a ‘graf-general’ was.

Obviously unhappy about being awake so early, the major started to say something. Then he stopped—both men turning to the sound of car tires and the shine of headlights as a civilian vehicle approached the Air Base gate. It stopped ten meters from the gate and the headlights dimmed. Major Gonzales swiped his pass at the pedestrian gate and waited while it opened slightly. He squeezed through, then stopped and made certain it closed behind him before cautiously approaching the SUV. Sgt. White wondered just what in the Hell was going on and why this person was coming on post at 0400, if that was who was in the vehicle. Apparently it was, because the major entered something into the gate’s code reader, swiped his card and opened the vehicle gate. The light-colored SUV rolled in, then stopped a few meters clear of the fence.

Sergeant White heard a whistling sound behind him, a bit like a jet at altitude. Then his ears popped and he realized that an extra shadow had just appeared next to the stack of palletized cargo waiting to be loaded later that morning. At the same time he also heard the SUV’s door open and White turned back to see a broad-shouldered man step out of the driver’s side front. He wore civilian clothes but carried himself like a soldier. Major Gonzales walked up to stand beside the newcomer. “Good. She’s on time,” the civilian said. He clipped the first word short and White couldn’t place his accent. Then the perimeter guard pivoted as he heard footsteps coming from beside the cargo pile.

A small, skirted figure carrying two bags emerged from the shadows. “Halt!” White barked, aiming his rifle at the intruder. The figure froze and Major Gonzales raised his hand, stopping the noncom.

“I’ll see to this, Sergeant. Thank you,” and strode over to the waiting arrival. There was some quiet discussion and the officer looked at the person’s documents. Where the blazes had she come from? White wondered, growing very concerned about the unorthodox goings on. The man with the car stood still, watching as Gonzales and the woman walked towards the guard.

As they drew closer, a woman’s voice said in accented British English, “thank you, Major but there is no good way to move my vehicle. I suggest just throwing a tarpaulin over it as you would non-weatherproofed cargo units. If you need it shifted, here’s my cell number. I’ll come and relocate it.” She handed the officer a card and he tucked it into a pocket.

“Thank you, Ma’am. I don’t think we’ll need it moved. Is there any chance of someone mistaking it for actual cargo?”

White blinked hard as he realized that the woman had a patch over one eye. “No, Major Gonzales. Trust me, no one will want to touch the Dark Hart, let alone move it. Even people used to the technology find it, hmm, uncomfortable to be around. Just toss a cover over the beast and ignore it.”

Now the waiting man stepped forward and the woman stopped, coming to near attention. She bowed slightly, “My lord General.”

“Put your bags in the rear seat, Commander Na Gael. We need to be away before it gets any lighter.” Now White recognized the man’s accent—German, with a touch of something else. As the woman did as ordered, the German turned to the watching Air Force officer. “Thank you for allowing us to use your facility, Major. We’ll call ahead if there are any changes to our schedule.” With that he got back into the car. Gonzales let the vehicle out and it disappeared into the morning darkness.

“No one entered or left this morning, Sergeant,” the Columbian-born officer informed the guard.

“Yes, sir.” What else did you say? The major walked off, leaving the utterly puzzled sergeant to finish his watch in peace.

Two hours later, Joschka von Hohen-Drachenburg and a Ms. “Moira Ni Panguar” checked into the La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe, New Mexico. As per the Austrian’s request, they had a suite on the top floor. It was several hours before official check-in time but the room was already ready and a young bellman took their bags up while the pair ate breakfast. The woman excused herself and went upstairs. The man finished his coffee, signed for their meal and hunted up his own quarters. Once there, with the outer door locked, he tapped a code on a closed bedroom door. It opened and Joschka smiled down at his fiancée. Then he pulled her close, holding her as tight as he dared. They’d been apart for six months and that was six months too long for Joschka. Phone calls were no replacement for having Rada where he could see and touch her.

“Missed you,” he whispered into her hair.

“Missed you more,” she hummed as she purred. “I’m glad you could get away.”

The HalfDragon tried not to sigh out loud. It was not easy. The only reason he’d been able to leave the Tyrol was because of Rada’s time ship – it could bring him back instantly should the need arise. But at least he could travel away; although she’d never said anything, Joschka suspected that Logres would hurt her badly if she were to leave for longer than two or three days, and especially if she went as far as North America.

At last he released her and she immediately began poking her nose into all the corners and crannies of their rooms. “Please don’t shed on the upholstery,” he teased, waving towards the white couch.

“Why do you think I only wear gray? Saves a fortune in cleaning bills,” the woman replied. Then she stopped and with an effort made herself walk over to the French doors that opened onto a small patio. After knowing her for this long, Joschka could read the mixture of concealed fear and determination in her body language and came up behind her to support her.

“I still can’t believe I let you talk me into this,” Rada observed, looking out through the glass towards the old central plaza. Her shoulders ached with tension and she fought the urge to beg Joschka to take her back to the Dark Hart and let her flee to the haven of Europe or somewhen even farther away from here.

Her fiancé rubbed her shoulders. “Rada, the time may come when you have to come to North America on a mission, God forbid.” Both of them winced at the thought because it meant that something very, very bad would have happened, something even worse than Germany two years before. He continued, “You need to get over your fear before then.” Joschka’s point was, alas, a good one and he felt Rada sag even as she agreed.

“It’s just,” she took a deep breath. “I know that what happened is several hundred Earth years in the future, and I know that it happened almost two hundred kilometers from Santa Fé, but that does not make it any easier being here.”

Joschka reached around and embraced her. She laid her cool hands on his warm ones as he rested his chin on her head. He sent, <<I’m sorry, Rakoji. I didn’t realize Santa Fe was so close. Should we stay somewhere farther away?>> Even as she flinched away from hearing her name, Rada felt his concern and apology. She responded with reassurance and love.

No. Let’s just not go too far northwest of here. As you and Dr. Albioni said last year, little steps. She’d almost given in when she couldn’t recover quickly from her descent into the shadows. It seemed like a permanent failure, but her associates had driven and pulled her forward, encouraging her to accept small steps. Even Zabet had toned down her usual sarcasm once the true-dragon realized how deadly serious the problem was.

Joschka felt the Wanderer gather herself and he straightened up, then leaned around her. “Now, shall we go out and scandalize society?” he inquired with a rather naughty grin before releasing her.

Rada looked over her shoulder at him, her expression both knowing and tired. “You do realize that you sound all too much like Zabet just now?”

“The greater wisdom of reptiles is a truth universally acknowledged,” he informed her soberly. Rada made a rude noise, which he ignored.  “I trust you got my last message?”

“Yes, sir. And I agree with your assessment, so I brought a few extra sensors and such with me. Ah, just to make certain I understand completely,” the brunette raised her eyebrow, “I’m posing as your mistress?”

Joschka sat down in one of the armchairs and smiled. “Correct. It gives people something to assume, explains why we are together so much, and they won’t look any farther than the surface.” And it gave him an excuse to hover. “Before you start fretting, its highly unlikely that anyone will connect us with our usual habitats. I’m not in the social pages anymore and you don’t really exist. Besides, it works for you and Zabet,” he continued logically.

Rada looked up at the ceiling and then went to put on different cosmetics and her contact lenses and to change into something besides her “uniform.” She suspected that Joschka just wanted an excuse to pet her, not that she minded!

 

Two hours later the couple stopped in front of a jewelry store window, one of many surrounding the plaza. “That is lovely!” the woman exclaimed, pointing towards a necklace in one of the cases.

“It is, isn’t it?” Joschka agreed, studying the piece. “The workmanship on the enameling alone . . .” They resumed their stroll. “And in contrast,” he nodded towards what would best be described as a breastplate. It was made of rough-cut chunks of turquoise surrounded by twigs of coral and lapis beads, all in a heavy silver mount on a stout silver chain. “No my dear: you are too small to wear that well,” he continued, a bit louder.

“I also have too much taste to wear that at all,” Rada commented under her breath. Pretending to be disappointed she added aloud, “I’m afraid you are quite correct, sir. It needs someone much taller than I. But it is quite impressive.” The store’s owner, working near the open door, smiled at what he took to be a compliment. Neither European corrected his impression, instead just smiling back and continuing their leisurely walk around the old town. The deep overhangs provided comfortable shade for people walking and window shopping, as well as allowing room for others to pass. Joschka and Rada were not in a hurry, in part because they needed to acclimate, especially Rada. Joschka lived at just over a thousand meters, but Santa Fe’s elevation doubled that. He noticed Rada working harder than usual and she seemed to be growing warm despite the cooling breeze.

“How are you feeling?” he inquired after a few hours. They’d stopped for coffee (him) and water. Rada blinked a little.

“I’m getting a headache and I seem to be short of breath. Apparently the tricks we learned for rapid acclimation no longer work for me,” she sighed.

The older-seeming man leaned forward, adding in Trader, “don’t forget that you also don’t have the drugs we used, Hairball.” She blinked as she remembered, then nodded vigorously. And winced at the results.

That afternoon, Rada took a much-needed nap while Joschka continued prowling the old town. When she awoke, she felt something cool and heavy around her neck. She touched it lightly, feeling small cup-like shapes trailing down to a straight but lumpy piece. The Wanderer’s eye sprang open and she sat up and raised the jewelry so that she could see it. “It looks even better on you than in the window,” Joschka observed with a broad smile as her mouth formed a silent “o.”

The necklace of white gold, coral, and enamel cherry blossoms was a treasure. Fourteen blooms formed the curve of the piece, growing slightly smaller as they cascaded down to the central “wooden” stem. White-pink enamel colored each petal, while dots of pale pink coral topped the stamens within the flowers. As Rada gaped at the piece, Joschka reached around her, lifted it out of her hands and fastened the clasp behind her neck.

“I . . . love, it’s beautiful! Thank you!” Rada’s eye shone as she looked at her reflection. She turned to Joschka, “thank you!” and hugged him as hard as she could.

“Well, as my mistress, you have a certain, let us say, position to display.” If she hadn’t known just how little Joschka cared about social rank, Rada would have believed him completely. He sounded exactly like a certain British duke they had both encountered at various times.

“I take it this means I should not wear my usual to supper?” His shudder answered that question. Instead, Rada wore a mildly low-cut dress with a long, full skirt and fancy silver belt, and heavier-than-usual cosmetics. Judging by the glances and nudges, Joschka’s plan succeeded quite well.  Careful observers noted his wedding band and her lack of one, considered the obviously disparate ages of the pair and their body language, and exchanged knowing looks and smiles. Europeans were not uncommon in Santa Fe, but few were so obvious about enjoying the company of a young woman apparently not restrained by the bonds of either kinship or matrimony. However, this being Santa Fe, no one did more than nod wisely.

“We’re being followed,” Rada observed as they walked back from the restaurant.

“I counted three. Do you concur?” Joschka asked, not bothering to look behind them for the trio skulking from shadow to doorway.

“Affirmative.” His fiancée gave a quick twist to the top of her cane, undoing the latch should she need the concealed sword blade. “Are you going to warn them off?” she inquired a bit more loudly, in English. She might have been asking if they were going to get an ice cream, if one went by the tone in her voice.

Joschka heard the three men picking up their pace and slowed his own steps. Rada matched his actions, her free hand reaching towards a pocket concealed by the folds of her shawl. “I think you just did,” he said, baring his fangs.

The muggers didn’t stand a chance. Two of them rushed Joschka, who spun around and snapped his arm out, redirecting the first attacker and slamming him sideways into a lamppost. The second assailant, a rather scrawny young man, found himself kicking air as something lifted him by his collar and disarmed him. The terrified human wet his pants and whimpered, wondering what had such bright red eyes and why him. The HalfDragon tossed him into the same lamppost as his companion before turning to check on Rada.

Her assailant had made the mistake of drawing a gun. “Give me your purse and jewelry, bitch.” He compounded the error by taking his eyes off his prey for a heartbeat. When he looked back, a black pistol aimed at his chest.

“Drop the weapon or else,” the small woman growled, eye cold. Instead, the stocky man swung to cover Joschka. The crook’s eyes bulged abruptly as Rada shot him in the chest. He flopped to the ground. After checking his pulse she used her cane to remove the fool’s handgun from grabbing distance while Joschka called the police.

“Is he dead?” Joschka asked in German, covering the phone for a moment.

She shook her head and smiled sweetly. “Just sleeping.” Joschka frowned at the joke and relayed the information that three muggers, two of them unconscious, were at the corner of Galisteo and San Francisco streets. As he talked, Rada discreetly kept her pistol at the ready, just in case. However, the only conscious criminal decided that he’d rather lay still and wait to be rescued from the strange creatures.

The police sergeant was quite relieved that the two foreign tourists were uninjured but didn’t quite know what to make of the woman’s identification and especially of her international firearms permit. “Commander Na Gael, I’ll tell you what. I’ll just write that you have a reciprocal concealed carry license for your handgun and we’ll leave it there.” That’s one weird weapon he though as he finished the initial paperwork. I’ll have to ask Jake if he’s heard of the Special Forces trying something new.

The brunette agreed quickly. “Certainly officer. Whatever will cause the least fuss. I apologize for creating any disturbance.”

Sergeant Tsegi shook his head. “No problem, ma’am.” He wondered what the ratty-looking one had been drinking or smoking. He kept trying to tell Officer Baca that the older man had fangs and red eyes. Ah well, chalk it up to another bad batch of homebrew probably, the policeman sighed. He’d have enough trouble with the boss when word of an attempted mugging this close to the Plaza reached the shift supervisor. “Sir, Ma’am, if you’ll just keep this with you,” and he handed them a card with a phone number, his name, and a tracking number. “And do you have a way you can be reached?”

Joschka nodded. “Here’s my card. I wrote our hotel information on the back.” The policeman noted where they were staying and the gentleman’s rank.

“Thank you, General, ma’am. Good night.”

The couple left their attackers in the capable hands of the police and returned to the hotel. Once there, Rada took out her hairpins and shook down her braid before emerging from her room with an old, expensive German camera. She ventured onto the patio, looking as if she were taking a picture of the tag-end of sunset. Joschka joined her, puzzled until he heard a very quiet hum from the “Hasselblad.” The woman turned this way and another, finally aiming the lens north.

The man leaned over her shoulder and she moved her head out of the way so he could look into the top of the camera. He saw a digital readout displaying a pattern of spikes and curves. “What does it show?”

“Some sort of energy pattern, but I don’t know what sort or why. It could be associated with the Los Alamos National Laboratory.” She sounded dubious and Joschka nodded curtly.

“Since the North American Branch is still otherwise occupied, we’re back on duty.” Rada nodded in turn as he continued, “see what you can find out about the energy patterns and I’ll inform Col. Nostrand that we are looking into the matter.” Rada nodded again and went into her room. Soon Joschka heard the soft click of her typing.

The next morning Joschka decided that they needed to go north. Rada agreed. She seemed rather quiet and subdued, but given which direction they were going and the previous evening’s excitement, he didn’t think much about it. He did, however, veto her driving their rental vehicle. “You are not used to driving on the right side of the road,” he reminded her.

“So? I’ll adapt,” she promised.

“Not on my credit card,” Joschka stated firmly. She muttered and pouted before conceding that perhaps he did have a valid argument. Maybe. The four-wheel drive came with a fancy satellite radio and GPS and soon she was happily messing about with the controls as Joschka worked through morning rush hour. She also had her electronics gear and a set of detailed highway and terrain maps, and once she’d satisfied the urge to fiddle, Rada tracked their progress compared to the readings from the sensors. They left the highway and began working west and north along curving mountain roads.

Rada looked up from her gizmos and studied the rocks towering over the road. “It must have been quite a sight when the volcano erupted,” she observed, apparently apropos of nothing.

“Volcano?” Joschka didn’t take his eyes off the road.

“This area is a rift valley. The thick white rocks with all the little holes are tuffa from a large eruption. That’s why Los Alamos has geothermal energy,” she explained. “In fact, just beyond the park, ah” she rustled a map. “Bandalier National Monument, there’s a caldera you can drive around. It’s called ‘the big valley’, Valle Grande.”

Joschka slowed for a battered pickup that’s driver didn’t have anything to lose by standing on his brakes and turning without signaling. After Joschka navigated that little surprise, he asked, “geothermal suggests that the area is not, what’s the term, extinct?” His specialty was not geology, although he knew enough of the basics to read mineralogical and mining studies.

The brunette nodded, eyes scanning the surrounding terrain. “Correct. I’d call it very dormant to extinct, but there are still earthquakes, hot springs, and other items of interest. Father east and north, out on the plains, the volcanoes are only dormant. The hot-spot moved since the mountains here were uplifted.”

“Love, why do you know so much about the local geology?”

She chuckled a little and pointed to the right. “Interesting things coming from that way.” After the vehicle turned and started northeast, she added, “Because the volcanoes near Singing Pines are barely dormant. Burnt Mountain is probably overdue for an eruption, but how overdue I don’t care to know. The Royal Steward and I have evacuation plans ready for a number of possible events, ranging from flood to forest fire to avalanches of boiling mud. So I developed a mild interest in fire mountains. Can you pull into this parking area, sir?”

They had driven down the town’s main street and were past the national laboratory’s public gates, in the parking lot of a restaurant. Rada’s “camera” sat in her seat, and she and Joschka made a point of having the road atlas out. They were a pair of geographically-confused tourists, a rather common sight in the area. Joschka was careful not to gesture towards the government installation behind them as he tapped the map then pointed. “Was hast Du gefunden?” What have you found?

“Whatever is giving off the strange energy spikes is not from the main laboratory facility here,” and she tipped her head towards the sprawling complex on the other side of the road. “Which is not to say that it might not be from another part of the Lab. There are little facilities all over this plateau. But I think our source is beyond the plateau, farther north and west but not too far.” A gust of cool breeze fluttered the maps lying in the front seat and she grabbed for them as Joschka studied the road atlas. He heard car tires and looked up to see a police vehicle pulling into the lot behind them.

A local officer got out of the car and approached the couple. “Good morning sir, ma’am,” she said politely.

“Good morning officer,” Joschka replied. Rada finished corralling the wayward maps and straightened up, closing the Hasselblad’s viewfinder as she did.

“Are you folks looking for something in particular?” the policewoman inquired, taking note of Joschka’s accent, the rental tag on the SUV, and the pile of maps.

The graying man smiled and nodded. “Actually, we are. We seem to have missed a turn. We were looking for the Los Alamos history museum. We found the science museum, but there does not seem to be any more Los Alamos,” and he waved towards the pine trees and grasses farther down the road.

The brown-haired woman gave the visitors a sympathetic look. “You did. Because of the roadwork, they took the sign down last week and won’t have it back up until Tuesday week, maybe. You need to go back,” and she showed them where to turn. “The construction zone has things confused, so just look for the Pizza Hut and turn right there.” Rada had been making notes and the officer concluded with, “may I see your ID please? They,” and she nodded to the other side of the street, “get a little paranoid.”

“I certainly understand,” Joschka said, giving her both his driver’s license and his military identification. “Rachel Na Gael” also produced both documents and the policewoman frowned at the pictures.

“Let me remove my contacts,” Rada said quietly, turning aside for a moment but keeping her hands in view. She turned back and the other woman blinked hard, and then returned the couple’s identification.

“Thank you, ma’am. I’m sorry.”

The Wanderer managed a smile. “You’re welcome. It’s an old injury.”

After that, they were more or less obligated to go to the museum, which was small but interesting. Rada found a coffee shop and panderia, and they got anise cookies and sweet rolls in the shape of seashells to take with them. “I think we need to go to Chimayo,” Joschka informed his friend.

She licked up a stray crumb. “Any reason why? It’s a lovely old chapel, from the pictures, but why not go to, ah,” she pretended to study the map, “Bandalier? It’s closer, and we can see Chimayo tomorrow.”

“I’m curious to see the folk-art altar there,” he said aloud, his tone rather firm. Silently he added, because I don’t want anyone following us, now that we’ve been seen here. Humor me.

“Yes, sir,” she replied. Even paranoid people have enemies, et cetera? Very good, my lord General.

Once they were back on the road that fed into the highway towards Chimayo, Joschka relaxed. Rada used the trip to triangulate the energy transmissions and had faint lines on the map before they reached the main road north. “Valle Grande,” she sighed aloud. “That is the good news. However, it is now a very, very restricted-access nature preserve. We can circle it on the road but if we need to actually go into the valley, we’re going to have a problem.”

“Hmmm,” Joschka replied, eyes staying on the road. The blend of local and tourist traffic kept things interesting and he concentrated on driving while Rada navigated. Once they got off the highway, through a couple of villages and onto the road to Chimayo, he felt better. “Is there a way to circle the valley? Because that may be all we need to do to answer the question about the energy source if it is from one of those outlier laboratories you mentioned.”

“Yes, sir, there is. We can use the state highway for part, and since you have a high-clearance vehicle, we can go into the National Forest and use their roads.” Rada made some notes on the map margin, then folded everything and tucked the papers in her black satchel. She helped herself to an anise cookie and crunched quietly. They stopped in a parking lot not far from a small adobe church with an earthen wall around it. The woman stowed her satchel out of sight, then carefully stepped out of the tall vehicle. She waited a moment to confirm that Joschka had locked the four-wheel-drive, then fell in behind him and walked through the low arch over the primitive wooden front gate to the courtyard.

The Santuario was fairly small and she smiled a little as another German-speaking tourist commented, “It’s tiny.” Well, no, but it had been a private chapel, so why make it huge? Joschka held the door for her, then paused and genuflected to the Presence. Rada curtsied a little. The dark, cool interior smelled of incense and damp earth and Rada felt herself relaxing in the holy space. Chimayo was a healing shrine famous around the world and had been a place of power for the Indians before the Spanish and their Christ arrived on the continent, she mused, studying the gilded wooden pillars framing the miraculous crucifix of Our Lord of Esquipulas. Crimson and blue silk streamers draped the space behind the wooden image, while above it towered the painted wooden reredo. A figure of Our Lord in Chains formed the center of the reredo, surrounded by images of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Saint Michael Archangel, St. Joseph, St. Francis, El Santo Niño de Atocha and other saints, all painted in the brightly colored traditional style. Out of habit, Rada lit a small candle to St. Michael. It couldn’t hurt, she rationalized.

Joschka seemed to lose himself in studying the altar and its surround, so the brunette poked her head into the adjacent rooms. She did not visit the “little well” with its blessed soil; she believed in miracles, but not that kind. Rada leaned on her walking cane and tried counting the braces, rosaries, pictures, crutches and other items left as thanks-offerings for cures, or as hopes for cures. There were also milagros, silver charms in the shape of the body parts that needed care. After a minute or so she rejoined Joschka and basked in the quiet sense of shelter the adobe walls provided. She could only sense Joschka and one other, and the Wanderer smiled. It’s been shielded, somehow. Fascinating! Is it the mineralific soil, or the fact that this has been holy ground for over a thousand Earth years?

The Austrian broke away from his contemplations and looked around for Rada. He spotted her standing off to the side, out of the way of the doors, and went to join her. “Faith is an amazing thing,” Joschka observed, tipping his head towards the miraculous Crucifix. She nodded silently, then blinked and turned towards the doors to the area where the “holy earth” was found. An old man in black came through the doorway, paused to bow to the altar, then walked directly towards the couple. As he got closer Joschka saw the clerical collar and he bowed slightly to the priest.

“The Lord be with you,” the man said quietly.

“And also with you,” the pair replied.

The man’s eyes almost disappeared in wrinkles as he smiled at their response. He turned slightly and asked Rada, “Are you here for the Lord’s healing?”

“No, Father. I’ve learned to live around my injury.” Joschka laid his hand on her shoulder as she spoke, although whether in support or caution she wasn’t sure.

The priest gave her a shrewd look. “Sometimes the body recovers before the spirit, my child.” The brunette’s head dipped in acknowledgment. She sensed that Joschka wanted to ask the man something and so she excused herself and slipped out of the small santuario.

Joschka emerged from the earthy darkness and blinked as his eyes adjusted to the afternoon sunlight. He didn’t see his friend in the forecourt but he could guess where she’d gone. Indeed, he left the outer gate, followed a small sign and heard a very quiet “thhwip, thhwip, thhwip” coming from a patch of shade under a big cottonwood tree beside the gift shop. The HalfDragon smiled as he caught Rada licking ice cream off of her fingers from where it had dripped down the cone. “You and your ices,” he kidded her before getting his own. She didn’t deign to comment, instead trying to keep up with the melting treat. Joschka worked on his own in a more dignified manner, since he was smart enough to get two scoops in a cup. His fiancée crunched the remains of her cone before carefully wiping her mouth. “You missed a spot,” he stated, and as she gave him an inquisitive look, he leaned over and playfully kissed the tip of her nose. “Got it.” Rada flushed a little.

She remained quiet after they finished their treats, but then Joschka felt a little worn around the edges himself and he supposed that the altitude was wearing on him as well. It was still early afternoon but he didn’t see any point in going to the caldera that day. Better give things time to allay suspicions if they were being followed, he decided. Even now I assume the worst he snorted to himself as he let Rada into their vehicle. She navigated them back to the main highway and then lapsed into silence. At last he said, “Father Miguel is a very perceptive man.”

“Oh?”

He changed lanes and scooted around a car with a Mississippi license plate that’s driver apparently had never been in the mountains before. “Yes. He gave me something ‘for defense in time of dire need,’ as he phrased it.”

Rada thought for a bit. “Well, we both carry ourselves like soldiers and it’s no secret that the Germans have finally gotten serious about the war.”

Joschka nodded slightly. “If you can, Rada, when did it end?” He thought he remembered, but it had been a very long time since that particular military-history lecture.

“2092, Western calendar. That’s when the Islamists finally died out and the survivors accepted the possibility of changes in interpretation. But the combat and terrorism started winding down in the Sixties, after the demographic shift following China’s retaliatory attacks on Pakistan and Saudi.” She sighed, “The Islamists really should not have tried an all-fronts war just as the Europeans finally got mobilized.” The brunette left it at that and Joschka didn’t ask any more. He was too busy wondering where all the lunatic drivers had come from! It was a great relief when he pulled into the entrance of the La Fonda’s parking garage.

His shoulders ached and he had to laugh. “What’s up?” his companion inquired, curious.

“Oh, I’ve just gotten spoiled by having a driver,” Joschka admitted. Rada, who clung like a limpet to “her” fussy, cantankerous, and inefficient 1950s sports car, stuck her tongue out at him. “That is utterly uncalled for,” he scolded. Like most cats, Rada simply ignored him, at least until they left the parking cellar. She dropped back behind his shoulder as they entered the low-ceilinged lobby and crossed the red-brown tile floor to the bank of elevators. Rada shifted position again while they waited and he wondered what she was doing. Then he realized that she’d more or less hidden from sight of the people around them. Coupled with her earlier behavior, the vanishing act set Joschka’s internal alarms off. What is she hiding from? he asked himself, discretely studying the lobby. But he didn’t see or sense any threats and the elevator appeared before he had time to ask her. They and another couple went up to the top floor.

He decided to take advantage of the private whirlpool hot tub provided for guests on La Fonda’s upper storey. Rada trailed him onto the deck but found a place in the shade, still in her street clothes.

“I thought you liked warm water?”

She gave the hot tub a wistful look. “I do. But if someone else joins us, I don’t want questions about why my cosmetics don’t run or rub-off if I get splashed.”

Joschka eased into the wet heat and tried not to sigh as his muscles began relaxing. “So take off the makeup. That’s what most women do.”

She laughed bitterly. “No, Awful. You know what the sight of my face does to other people. The hotel staff won’t appreciate my driving off their guests by wandering around without cosmetics and contacts.”

“Stop it, Rada,” the graying man snapped. “You are not ugly, so stop saying that you are.”

“You’ve seen what’s under this,” she waved towards the right side of her face. “Eye like a blood-spattered marble, Lan-zhe’s little reminder layered on top of enough keloid to suture a gutted cow closed, and you want me to go without cosmetics?”

“Rada, stop.” The ice in his voice could have quenched hot steel. Silence stretched longer and longer between them. After a quarter of an hour he stood up and she handed him a towel. He dried his hair, wrapped the towel around his waist and sat down beside her on the sunny part of the bench. “What happened?”

“When I left the room this morning to get a paper, someone saw me.” Her hands balled into fists and she mimicked an American accent. “He blanched and said that ‘you should find a plastic surgeon before you ruin anyone else’s breakfast’.” Before Joschka could do more than inhale she added, “I told him that if Parliament hadn’t cut the Ministry of Defense pensioners’ budget, I could have.”  She gave her fiancé a faintly guilty look. “He stammered an apology, so you don’t have to hunt him down for being a fool.”

“Then I won’t. But you are still not ugly, Rada.” He wondered how often he’d have to tell her before she believed him. He and her business partner were probably the only creatures who knew what she had looked like before her face had been so badly scarred. If the wounds didn’t go into her soul, it would be easier he sighed to himself. I wonder if that’s what Father Miguel meant about spirit and body? Joschka rested his arm on her hunched shoulders. She didn’t look up from studying the wooden decking.

“After this long, you’d think I’d stop letting myself be hurt by things like that,” the Wanderer-hybrid whispered.

He thought about it. “Perhaps it’s because you spend so much time with people who are used to combat injuries and disfigurements. The G.D.F. personnel and the Azdhagi don’t react, so when someone does act like a fool, it catches you off guard.” There was more, he suspected; much more. But this was not the time to pursue it. Instead he stood up and went inside, giving Rada a little space to think.

He’d gotten cleaned up and was waiting when she finally returned to their rooms. “Would you like to talk?”

“Thank you, but no.” She tried to smile. “It’s the combination of things – our location, that fool this morning and the police officer, an unknown something waiting up in the Valle . . .” Rada went over and plugged in the small coffee maker on the sideboard. “Coffee?” He declined, so she started hot water for tea, then continued, “I’m sorry for being such a mope, love.”

She fixed her tea and then turned to find that he had come up behind her. “Rada, if anyone has grounds for indulging in a mope, it’s you. However,” his finger wagged, “only one mope.” The brunette grinned a little and he took the hand not holding a mug. “If you have no objections, I think we’ll have supper here,” and he waved towards the Spanish-colonial style table in the center of the main room. “You may not be tired but I am and I think tomorrow will be a long day.”

“You too?” she inquired. The cream-colored loveseat faced their balcony, and Joschka sat down with a large bottle of water. His fiancée finished her tea, then sat beside him. On a whim he tugged on her shoulder and she leaned over, then continued and lay down, tucking her feet against the end of the small couch and resting her head in his lap. Before Joschka could do more than blink, she started whistling softly and was sound asleep. The HalfDragon stared at her, a little taken aback by the sudden intimacy.  She’d napped like this before but not without his invitation. This time it came as a surprise, especially considering how restrained she was when it came to matters of the heart and the flesh. Well, no, she wasn’t always restrained he remembered, looking very far back into his memory. Captain Ni Drako wasn’t the company’s hell raiser, but she didn’t back down from a fight or a party. A grin spread across the graying man’s face as he thought about some of their escapades. Like the night that got her labeled ‘Major Gupta’s Hairball!’ He really did sound like a feline with something caught in its throat, the way he choked and sputtered when he saw all of us. Ah God, but we had some fun! They had also shared a lot of pain, even in the days when they had been young and invincible. Except you never were young, were you Rakoji? You never had a chance to be young. Maybe it was time to see if he could change that.

To be Continued…

(C) 2017 Alma T. C. Boykin All rights reserved

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Chapter excerpt Part 1

Comments are closed.